Advocates of Religious Holidays, Feb. Break Speak Out to School Committee

by | Mar 2, 2018

Several people came out for the School Committee’s second reading of the 2018-19 school calendar Tuesday night, fearing that religious holidays – particularly the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the weeklong break in February – might be on the chopping block.

The draft calendar being looked at by the School Committee doesn’t touch either of those but even the discussion of such moves at the School Committee meeting two weeks ago was enough to rally the troops.

For School Committeeman Matt Plain, discussion of calendar alternatives, including how to handle religious holidays, is an important part of his job as an elected official. But, Plain said Tuesday, he may not have been sensitive enough to the concerns of some people when talking about religious holidays.

The draft 2018-19 calendar would start school on Wednesday, Aug. 29, before the Labor Day weekend, as in past years. But both Rosh Hashanah (Monday, Sept. 10) and Yom Kippur (Wednesday, Sept. 19) fall on weekdays next year and there is the likelihood of a state Primary Day, which is currently slated for Wednesday, Sept. 12.

For some, that makes for a very disruptive beginning to the school year. With weeklong breaks in February and April, the cumulative impact means the final day of school is Monday, June 17. That is, unless there are unexpected days off for snowstorms and the like. The district has been averaging about four storm-type days off in recent years. If that were the case next year, the last day of school would be Friday, June 21.

Is this a problem? It depends on who you speak to.

Jeremy Weinberg said the fact that the schools were off for the Jewish holidays made a big difference to his family. “When my wife and I and our three children were looking for a place to live in Rhode Island, seeing that North Kingstown didn’t have those days off sent a signal to us. Seeing that East Greenwich did sent a different signal,” he said.

Rabbi Aaron Philmus of Temple Torat Yisrael on Middle Road said it would send the wrong signal if the Jewish holidays were taken away now, just three years after there was actually a Jewish place of worship in town. (See video for more.)

Carla Swanson took a different view.

“It breaks my heart that the school calendar is seen as a bellwether of how welcoming our community is,” she said. “The public schools should not have any religious holidays.”

But, she added, “I certainly would not like to see the Jewish holidays taken off and Good Friday staying on.”

School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Mark said she wanted to hear from the Administrative Council, which is made up of school principals and other administrators.

“I’m very interested in hearing what the Administrative Council thinks is in the best interest of teaching and learning,” she said.

Two high school students and some parents spoke in favor of retaining the February break.

“It would just be too long from Christmas vacation all the way to April vacation” to go without a vacation, said EGHS sophomore Caroline Hollingsworth. “I think we should have a break in there. A long weekend is not enough.”

Freshman Emily Brooks said she spent the first few days of the vacation last week catching up on school work but then, she said, “I was really able to put my books down and relax.”

If homework – too much of it – is the issue, said Committeewoman Lori McEwen, that can be addressed. Teachers could be told “no homework” if a long weekend were to replace February break, for instance.

“It struck me that we almost take that as gospel that there has to be so much homework that we can’t avoid it,” she said. As it happens, the district is in the midst of evaluating the homework load.

February break has also been a valuable time for high school students to visit college campuses, several people told the School Committee.

The calendar will be on the agenda again on March 6, possibly for a vote. You can watch the whole debate from Feb. 27 here.

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